Liberal Hero of the Week #86: Benedict Cumberbatch

by Stephen Tall on January 30, 2015

cf hero - benedict cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

Reason: for standing up to prejudice.

Context matters. So do intentions. Which means that when Benedict Cumberbatch this week used the word ‘coloured’ — provoking one of those wearily predictable storms — it needs to be read with the other words surrounding it:

“I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change. Something’s gone wrong, we’re not representative enough in our culture of different races and that really does need to step up a pace.”

The context makes clear that he considers discrimination against actors on the basis of their race to be a wrong needing righting; his intention is to stick up for those who encounter discrimination.

But, to some (by no means all), his use of an outmoded word more normally uttered by grannies and Daily Express readers, was the real outrage. He quickly issued an abject apology: “I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have.”

As Nick Cohen pointed out in The Spectator:

After the battering he has received, I doubt if Cumberbatch will take the trouble to argue for fairer treatment for ethnic minority and working class actors again. Pursed lipped prudes, who damn others for their sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic language, while doing nothing to confront real injustice, are characteristic figures of our time. As characteristic are well-meaning people abandoning good causes because they cannot take the prudes’ condemnations.

It’s not that language doesn’t matter: it does. (Don’t dare call me anti-semantic!) It’s why most of us try and use terms which are accurate, appropriate and don’t cause needless offence — both to avoid inadvertently hurting others’ feelings, and also to avoid our point being lost in a blizzard of recrimination.

But context and intention matter more. There’s more than enough prejudice out there that needs fighting without turning on those already on the same side.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.